Why I’m A Draft Packrat

roughdraft_finaldraftI miss college.

In the five years I’ve been writing this novel, I’ve done everything you’re not supposed to do. I let things sit for weeks or months, until I “felt” like writing. I wrote slow, under the misguided assumption that the words had to come out perfect the first time. I edited, edited, edited well before I ever had a first draft done. Don’t feel much like writing today… I’ll polish that last chapter I wrote! Only to have to cut the chapter later, and feel like a jerk for wasting my own time.

Plus, plot and characters changed so many times mid-draft that there were several drafts I abandoned entirely to start over from page one. That happened, oh, four or five times. Nearly every scene in the book has existed in so many different permutations, I sometimes forget what “version” I’m favoring currently.

And yet, I’ve never thrown any of it away. I have folder upon folder of draft discards: deleted lines, deleted scenes, the full drafts abandoned midway through.

Why? Because, even when I’m sure that what I’m cutting is best destroyed for the sake of mankind, I often find myself missing a certain description or scene later, and wanting to add it back. Fishing through earlier drafts spares me the angst of having to write it anew!

Even better, I eventually switched to writing in Scrivener, which made my packrat behavior much easier to manage. One of the main reasons I favor Scrivener over other writing tools is its snapshot feature. I can take a snapshot of any scene before I change it. That snapshot is then preserved for all time. I can go back and pull lines out of it- or revert back to the snapshot version wholesale.

snapshotThese are just for my first chapter…

The only problem is remembering to take a snapshot before I make changes- which I usually do, but occasionally I’ve forgotten. It’d be nice if Scrivener had an option where it prompts you to snapshot the first time you start typing in a scene. Not a big deal, though; I’ve never lost anything I couldn’t recover from.

Along with the snapshots, I also maintain a special file of cut lines/dialogue/etc. that I still like- just in case I might have use for those lines elsewhere.

If you don’t have Scrivener, I recommend keeping a folder or file of your discards. You never know when they might save your butt, and you can always delete them after the book is done! Of course, you should also be backing up all of your files on a regular basis.

Do you keep your discards? Or do you prefer a different system of retrieval? Let me know in the comments!


I’m a Writer! Copywriting Will Be a Cinch – Right?

moneyFork ’em over! You know you wanna!

Question: How do you get a writer to agonize for hours over a handful of words that aren’t in her manuscript?

Answer: Tell her she has to write her own blurbs, headlines, and website copy!

Hey, it’s my choice! I’m not looking for a publisher, so promotion is 100% my responsibility. Great that I have such control over my message and where it appears, but what the heck should that message be? How best to communicate it?

Because the sad truth is, prose writing does nothing to prepare you for copywriting. Copywriting is about presenting value and overcoming reluctance in the pithiest, grabbiest way possible. It’s not about spending paragraph after paragraph pouring your heart out. There’s testing involved- and big fonts, and benefit lists, and audits- arrrgh!

You can’t half-ass it either, any more than you can half-ass your prose. In fact, if your name isn’t Stephen King, nailing the copy is arguably more important than the prose. If your blurb fails to grab anyone’s attention, no one will ever read the book you spent so much time on.

So yeah, I’m slowly learning about all this stuff, using a series of books put out by the folks at Copyhackers. It’s interesting to discover what grabs people and what doesn’t, and how that changes over time as people all strive to emulate one another’s successes (i.e. shamelessly gank what works). But yeesh, this is a whole discipline in and of itself!

It takes long, grueling practice. Coming up with a good blog post headline should take just as long as writing the post itself. I’ll be honest, I don’t put nearly as much attention into my headlines as I should. As for the blurb that’ll eventually go on my novel? That’s been a work in progress for months. Every so often I’ll revisit it, beat the hell out of it for a few hours, then post the new version. I intend to keep doing that right up until it’s time to post the ebook for sale.

My website copy is also a constant work in progress. It’s something I’ll worry more about when I have more to promote and sell, but in the meantime, I’m trying to come up with pages that (1) clearly lead to my work, (2) express who I am, and (3) intrigue people enough to sign up for my mailing list.

I don’t have much by words of wisdom here- I’m still very much a novice- but I wanted to put it out there as something I’m learning in the overall process of self-publishing. If I come upon any insight or effective approaches, I’ll certainly report them. In the meantime, I’ll be tearing my hair out over my “value proposition!”

Do you have any experience with writing copy? Reply in the comments with 1 essential thing I should know!


Mark Twain’s Autobiography

mtauto_vol1My copy of Volume 1. Kirk and Spock are there for scale. These books will last you a while.

Since I’m in the business of making books, I figured you wouldn’t mind if I talked about them from time to time…

Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) is one of my favorite authors. I hope I don’t have to explain why. He had one stipulation regarding his official autobiography: that it not be released until 100 years after his death. That way, he could speak his mind with impunity, and anyone who might take offense would be long dead.

The first volume came out in 2010, followed by the second in 2013. I believe there’s one more yet to follow. They’re sold as giant books and ebooks, but you can also read them online, for free, at http://www.marktwainproject.org.

Twain made several attempts at an autobiography during his lifetime, only to shelve most of them. The one approach that worked for him was to dictate to his secretary, and not try to obey any sort of timeline. Reading it, you get that sense of someone meandering from this subject to that- oh, that reminds me- but it’s still Mark Twain, and to my delight, his speech wasn’t much different from his prose.

The volumes are loaded with pictures and stories. Twain also refers to current events from the early 1900s, supplying opinions and stories these events bring to mind. The whole thing is heavily annotated because although Twain speaks with an air of authority, his recollections often run contrary to fact. You have to read with two voices in your head: Twain’s, and that of a historian lovingly correcting him.

Reading the online version, I find myself cutting/pasting quotes to keep around for later amusement. Here’s one any writer will appreciate:

“It was one of those exasperating times when the brain is clogged and muddy and the words refuse to come: a body may know quite well what he wants to say; the idea in his mind may have shape and form, but by no ingenuity can the right words be found for the phrasing. Sometimes dogged persistency and determined effort will eventually improve the conditions and turn on the words and make them flow, but this does not often happen. The thing that does happen is that you may lose your temper, break some furniture, and quit for the day.”

Here’s one proving nothing ever changes:

“This idea was very simple in construction—even a Congressman could have understood it.”

Twain also assumes a philosophical bent at times:

“’Civilization is a condition wherein every man is of necessity both a master and a slave.’ It means forced labor, compulsory labor—every man working for somebody else while imagining that he is working for himself, and at the same time living upon the work of other men who think they are working for themselves and not for him. I do not know of any one, from the emperor down to the rag-picker, who under the hard conditions of civilization is not both master and slave, and who is not obliged to do work which he does not want to do, but does the work because he is a slave, and his master requires it of him and is able to compel him to do it.”


 

“It is human life. We are blown upon the world, we float buoyantly upon the summer air a little while, complacently showing off our grace of form and our dainty iridescent colors; then we vanish with a little puff, leaving nothing behind but a memory—and sometimes not even that. I suppose that at those [solemn] times when we wake in the [deeps] of the night and reflect, there is not one of us who is not willing to confess that he is really only a soap-bubble, and [as] little worth the making.”

Twain and I share a mutual disdain of “prophets”:

“Has the trade of interpreting the Lord’s matters gone out, discouraged by the time-worn fact that nobody succeeds at it? No, it still flourishes; there was never a century nor a country that was short of experts who knew the Deity’s mind and were willing to reveal it. Whenever there has been an opportunity to attribute to Him reasonings and conduct which would make a half-witted human being ridiculous, there has always been an expert ready and glad to take advantage of it.”

The novel I’m working on draws some influence from one of my favorite Mark Twain books, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Here’s one of my favorite quotes from that book, because I can’t help myself:

“Somehow, every time the magic of folderol tried conclusions with the magic of science, the magic of folderol got left.”

That’s not to say Twain didn’t experiment with things like phrenology or self-healing- the latter being similar to what has survived as Christian Science today. However, he was quick to discard anything that looked more like trickery than science.

Anyway, there’s plenty in these volumes for fans of Twain, people with a functioning sense of humor, and anyone curious about the early 20th century. They’ll keep you occupied a while, too!

Have another favorite Twain book to recommend? Let me know in the comments!


Publication for the Unpublished Writer

storyinthewild

Seeing our words in print is a dream for a lot of us- maybe even a holy grail at times, impossible to reach.

No matter his age, the unpublished writer feels like a kid fresh out of college, trying to land his first full-time job. Everyone who’s hiring wants someone experienced. How on Earth will he get experience if no one hires him?

Many writers say “screw it” and self-publish. (Heck, I’m doing the same with my novel.) For those who want a traditional publishing credit, what can be done to beef up the resume?

Practice practice practice. I wrote for years and years (and years) before ever attempting to sell anything: fanfic, RPGs, several million abandoned works in progress. They all taught me something. Many of them make me gag now, but that just means I’ve improved in the intervening time. Keep hammering away until you’re a competent storyteller. You must also…

Share your work for critique. “For critique” is the important part. It’s tempting to join friendly fiction communities who greet every story with a barrage of “OMG LOVE IT!” comments- but aside from a fleeting ego boost, you gain nothing. Find people who read with the intent of analyzing what’s good and what can improve. Click here for more thoughts on soliciting the most helpful feedback.

If you’re like me, you may also need to build up your courage to share anything in the first place.

“Looks good. Find it a home.” So said one of my writer’s group colleagues, each time he read something he considered ready for publication. Magazine, website, anthology, free or paid- it’s up to you and your specific goals.

Where the heck do you find them? I used Duotrope to search for publications of my desired genre, story length, payment scheme, etc. Keep an eye out for publications that welcome submissions from first-time authors.

When you find a promising publisher, read their submission guidelines carefully. For instance, “previously unpublished” work means it can’t have been posted anywhere for public consumption, not even on your own personal website. Also ensure your manuscript is properly formatted. If the submission guidelines don’t specify a style, use this formatting guide by William Shunn.

To submit your work, you may need to include a query letter. The query letter is supposed to give the editor (or other deciding party) an idea of how long your submitted work is, whether it’s been published before, and your past publishing experience.

Uh-oh- but you don’t have publishing experience!!

No worries. Just don’t mention it.

For help, here’s the verbatim cover letter that helped get my unpublished butt into Analog Science Fiction and Fact:

Dear [Name of editor in charge of submissions],

I am submitting my short story, “In Perpetuity,” to Analog Science Fiction and Fact for publishing consideration.  The story is approximately 6,300 words, and is previously unpublished.

Thank you in advance for your time and consideration.  If you require anything further from me, please don’t hesitate to ask.

Sincerely,

Ellis Morning
[full contact details: home address, phone, email]

Should you stop at one submission? Maybe, maybe not. Because of the high-rejection nature of the business, some people shop the same story to multiple publishers at once. It’s up to you whether you have your heart set on a specific publication, or just want it to show up somewhere. Make sure the submission guidelines don’t stipulate against you submitting to multiple publications.

All done with submissions? Time to wait. A lot. It’ll be different everywhere you submit, but several month-long waits are not unheard of. Don’t hammer the publication(s) for updates. If they promise to get back to you in X amount of time, and you don’t hear from them by then, one polite follow-up is OK. Ask if they’re still considering the story, or if you may submit it elsewhere. No further response means “no.” Move on.

They accepted!! Now what? You may receive a contract to sign and return. Fully understand all terms before doing so- look them up, if you have to. What rights do you retain, what rights does publisher receive, and for how long? How will you be compensated? If there’s no formal contract, get as much of this in writing as possible. Both sides should know what the deal is.

After you hand in the contract, a print publication may send a proof of your story- a representation of how it will appear in the magazine, newspaper, etc.- and ask you to review it for mistakes. Do this with great care, as formatting and spelling errors sometimes sneak in at this point.

Once you approve the proof, get ready to wait again! It was about 15-16 months from the time I first submitted In Perpetuity to the time it showed up in print.

What if I’m rejected? Congratulations- you’re a writer! I struck gold with my first short story submission, but I’ve yet to win any literary contest I’ve ever entered. So it goes. It doesn’t necessarily mean your work sucks- the publication might be swamped with submissions, or looking for a specific kind of story to run. If the rejection refers to the story needing more work, though, address its flaws before submitting anywhere else.

Any other tips or tales of first-time publication? Tell me about it in the comments!


How Writers Do Research Right

nyc_library(Image credit: imagebase.net)

Research is easier than ever these days- thank you, Internet! Depending on what you’re writing, you may perform zero or tons of research to avoid sounding like you have no clue. You may also perform research for inspiration. Maybe a cool new fact is just the what you need to start outlining your next bestseller.

Some things to consider regarding research:

You may still want to go to the library. If you’re writing nonfiction, or straight historical fiction, you have to go to the library- don’t even try to worm out of it. Once you’re there, make friends with a librarian. They do more than just scan barcodes on books! Tell them what you’re working on- they’ll help you find what you need and save you tons of frustration.

Cite your sources properly. If you lift quotes or images straight out of someone else’s book/song/poem/whatever, you’d better (1) make sure the original creator has granted you permission to do so, and (2) include attribution. This is more a concern for nonfiction, but fiction writers shouldn’t be plagiarists either.

If you conduct research online, spend some time getting familiar with all the resources available to you. Google’s the obvious start, with its regular search engine, image search… seriously though, nothing made me more excited than when Street View came out, as it meant I could stage scenes on a Parisian street corner, for instance, and sound like I had some idea of what I was talking about. There are plenty more free online resources that may be of help: Project Gutenberg and Wikipedia, to name two. Your friendly neighborhood librarian will have even more ideas specific to whatever you’re trying to find.

Keep your BS detector handy. Do your best to confirm your online findings in real life. This would be more important for nonfiction or fiction that purports to be close to reality. If you’re writing something that’s more Wild West-flavored than authentic Wild West, for instance, then maybe you don’t care that saloon girls rarely doubled as prostitutes.

Be open to opportunities and surprises. If your findings invalidate your story idea, that’s not always a bad thing. Be open to taking a new direction- or, figure out how to make your original idea work in a more creative way. This roadblock may make your story more interesting than if it hadn’t existed.

Do NOT interrupt writing time for research. This can be so hard sometimes. You’re in the middle of writing a scene and you must know, what sort of objects might appear in an Italian kitchen in 1641? Well, let’s just flip to the browser! Several hours later, you’re an expert on medieval Italian kitchens- and you haven’t written a lick.

If you’re prone to get sucked into research binges, like I am, disable your Internet connection during writing time. When you come to a place where you need more info, note it down and start drafting a different section. Later, when you have lots of research items compiled, you can go back and look them all up at once.

Use your research to inform and flavor. Don’t be tempted to do more than that. As much cool stuff as you learn through research, you must refrain from cramming in and explaining every single detail. Show without telling. Delving into the why or how will take the reader out of your story.

To give an example from a manuscript I once proofread: my friend had drafted a really neat story about wizards in Pittsburgh. These wizards were about to meet up at one of the city’s many bridges. Instead of proceeding to that scene, the story segued into several paragraphs explaining the (admittedly) colorful history of the bridge. While this was neat info, it had nothing to do with the plot, and was only delaying the action.

A few minutes of research does not an expert make. Whatever you’re writing about, try to experience yourself if at all possible (or safe). There is no better way to lend power and credence to your written descriptions than by banking on personal experience.

But hey- not all of us can time-travel to Pre-Colombian America or set ourselves on fire. In that case, look for beta-readers or interview subjects who have experience with what you’re writing about. If you’ve never been in a fight, ask a martial artist or weapons expert to help with your fight scenes. If you’ve set a story in San Francisco and have never visited, a beta-read from a friend in San Fran might spare you from embarrassing mistakes.

Have you ever watched a Hollywood chase scene based in your city? Often, they jump between highways and neighborhoods that are actually miles apart from each other. Most people won’t be familiar with the geography, so it’s no big deal to them- but for actual city residents, it jars them out of the film.

Do you have any other suggestions or caveats concerning research? Drop me a line in the comments!